Establishing a business niche for career development professionals

During my workshop for private career development practitioners at this year’s CDAA National Conference in Adelaide, a question was raised about building a niche as a business strategy. My panel of speakers all supported specialisation, yet some in the audience had doubts.

When someone starts a business, particularly if it’s a micro business, they tend to be all things to all people, offering a range of products and services to anyone who calls. In the early days this is an understandable temptation, and may be practical in order to pay the bills and put food on the table.

At some point, it is wise to narrow the field. Being all things to all people is not a sustainable position in the long term. Apart from being exhausting meeting all these different demands, it does not build a reputation based on expertise, nor position you from competitors. Being a jack of all trades doesn’t play to your strengths and is a difficult position to market well.

What is a business niche?

A business niche means targeting a specific group or groups of people, who have specific, shared interests and needs, with products and/or services that meet those needs. A niche is a profitable segment of the market. Clients in this niche come to you because you are the ‘go to’ person who specialises in meeting their specific needs.

A niche means you are not targeting to masses. If you are bank, you may be able to make millions by having a large customer base each paying small sums for multiple transactions. As a career development practitioner, this is unlikely to be a viable business model.

A niche means you can aim to be a big fish in a small pond. The small pond is a specialised market segment. As a big fish you have captured a healthy chunk of that market segment, based on your specialised service or product.

I developed a highly specialised niche as part of my business, namely providing products and services to people who struggle with selection criteria. These are people who are trying to gain a job or change jobs where selection criteria are used, with a focus on the Australian Public Service. At the time I developed this niche, there were no competitors. The market was underserved and overlooked. Over time, others developed alternative products, of varying quality, however I had by this stage developed a strong reputation. Today, that reputation holds with much business coming by word-of-mouth referral. This niche is not the whole of my business model. However, I can claim to be ‘a big fish in a small pond’ regarding this market segment.

 Why establish a niche?

Catering to the masses is hard work and makes marketing difficult. Establishing a niche has several advantages:

  • It’s usually more profitable than being a generalist.
  • It means you can distinguish yourself from what else is available.
  • If you don’t stand out no one will see you.
  • It makes marketing easier as you have a distinguishable product or service to offer.
  • You can more effectively networking because you can more clearly explain what you and make referrals easier because you have a specific target market.
  • Your business will have greater clarity both for you and potential clients, you will be less confused about what you are offering and business will be less stressful because you know what you offer, to whom and why.
Doesn’t this mean I miss out on other business?

Yes it will mean you will no longer be agreeing to work in areas that are not your speciality, and for clients who are not who you really want to work with. Generally, people who specialise and drill down deep within that specialty, can charge higher fees and attract a steady stream of repeat work from their target audience.

Developing a niche expands and liberates rather than limits. You know exactly who to target, where to find them, what to say. You can stop going to all those meetings and conferences that don’t match your niche. You can stop creating new marketing materials for every new offering. Instead, life is focused, time, energy and money are directed to your target market rather scattered and largely wasted.

In catering for my niche – people who struggle with selection criteria – I provide a Review Service. I will review what a person has prepared with a view to showing them how to strengthen their case, and in doing so, learn how to do it themselves in the future. I do not offer a service to write responses for the person. Some people do offer this service. If a person is seeking this service rather than a review I refer them either to a specific professional colleague or to the CDAA website to search for a practitioner. Yes, you could call this lost business, but I do not wish to provide this service nor do this type of work. My strength lies in a review service, so that is what I offer.

How do I establish a niche?

Government business websites offer plenty of useful business advice. In summary, the following are some key steps to take in establishing your niche/s.

1. Your products and services

  • Briefly describe your current offerings.
  • Who are they targeting?
  • What are the features of your products and services?
  • What are the benefits of these features?

2. Identify your target market

  • Who needs your products and services?
  • Of your current target markets, which use your services the most?
  • Which of these groups generate the most income?
  • Which of these groups give you positive feedback?
  • What are the critical needs of your target market?
  • What pain is suffered due to these needs?
  • Are these needs being met?
  • Does your target market really want your products and services?
  • Are they willing to pay for your products and services?
  • Who will benefit the most from your products and services?
  • What are the demographics of your target market?
  • Where are they located?
  • What is the forecasted market growth for this group?
  • How much market share can you gain?
  • If you have to devote a lot of effort to learning about a particular subject, what do you enjoy the most?
  • What research do you need to do?

3. Who are your competitors?

  • Who else provides services to these groups?
  • What needs and wants of your target group are not being addressed by competitors?
  • What makes your products and services better than your competitors?
  • What barriers to market are there for you?
  • Are there seasonal or cyclical trends that may impact your business?
  • How will you price your product and services?
  • Are there regulatory requirements affecting your business and how will you comply?
  • What research do you need to do?

 4. Match your products and services to your target market/s

  • What solution/s do you offer your target market?
  • How can you become your niche’s leading authority?
  • Define what makes you different from your competitors.
  • Define the perceived value of your products and services for your target market.
  • What research do you need to do?

5. How will you reach your target market?

  • How will you give valuable insight and advice?
  • How can you expand into new avenues of serving your target market?
  • What channels will you use? E.g. website, blog, trade shows, conferences, meetings
  • What free information product could you create for your target market?
  • How will you establish yourself as the ‘go to’ person for your target audience?
  • Provide testimonials and case studies as proof of the value of your services
  • Consistently deliver your message via phone, email, web, blogs etc.
  • What research do you need to do?

In working through these questions you may need to seek some help from a business coach, mentor or respected colleague. The one area that tends to be a weakness for business owners is focusing too much on themselves and the features of their products and services rather than on providing a solution to a potential client’s problems and remove their pain. Compare these two statements. From a potential client’s viewpoint, which caters for a niche market? Which identifies a solution to pain? Which identifies results for the client?

Fictitious career practitioner statement:

I have over twenty-five years’ experience assisting clients of all ages and life stages with their career development. I take my professional development seriously, having completed a Masters of Career Development, a Graduate Diploma of Counselling and numerous HR workshops. I have contributed to my profession by serving on various committees and delivering workshops. My experience covers education, government and community sectors. I work in a VET college and operate my business called Career Coach Academy. I specialise in a range of career development-related areas and provide friendly, client-focused services.

My statement:

Mystified by selection criteria? Nervous about a job interview? Seeking clarity as you face a career transition? Wondering where your career is heading? Searching for meaning in retirement? Career Coaching with Ann Villiers, gives you the know-how to present your case strongly in writing and at interview, and to discover your strengths, purpose, direction. Australia’s Mental Nutritionist, Ann specialises in helping people to think more flexibly and speak more confidently by mastering mind and language practices. Ann is a qualified, Professional Member, has had academic and APS careers, and is nationally known for her book How to Write and Talk to Selection Criteria (6th edn).

If your statement has lots of sentences starting with ‘I’, is mainly about you, is general rather than specific, and does not include any reference to client needs, then it needs to be rewritten. Questions to ask yourself are: If I was a potential client, would I care about this information? Am I wiser about what is offered and how it meets my needs? Is this person a potential service provider for me?

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.